Chow Town

The art of creating elegant, but simple, cuisine

Chef Joel Robuchon
Chef Joel Robuchon

Editor’s note: This is a second in a series of blog posts by Dave Eckert about Las Vegas.

I’ve had some tough assignments in my years as a food and wine journalist.

There was the time I was forced to cook risotto and drink Barolo with Pio Boffa of the famed Pio Cesare estate at his home in Italy’s Piedmont region.

I was once coerced into taking a luxury yacht out onto the Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand on a brilliantly sunny, picture-perfect 75-degree day. Compounding matters, they’d brought along a local Marlborough chef who cooked up several versions of salmon farmed from the very waters we were traversing. The fantastically fresh fish was paired to the Pinot Noirs of one of the New Zealand’s best Pinot producers.

Or, how about the time somebody thought it was a great idea for me to taste a vertical of the Penfold’s legendary Grange spanning more than 30-years of vintages? The tasting was arranged by the equally legendary Penfold’s winemaker, Peter Gago, who also set up a multi-course gourmet meal that evening with each of the wines paired with a specific course. The meal took place at Penfold’s ethereal Magill Estate restaurant.

It hasn’t always been easy getting to the bottom of great food, wine and spirits stories the world over, but I’ve always been willing to make the necessary sacrifice.

On assignment in Las Vegas, I encountered another occasion requiring superior intestinal fortitude. As part of my on-going, hard-hitting, investigative food and wine reporting, I orchestrated a meal at the restaurant owned by Joel Robuchon followed by a one-on-one interview with the man himself two days later.

I’ll share details of the meal in a second, but first I thought I’d provide a little context on just how great a chef Robuchon is. Among the many accolades, honors, and awards he’s received, Robuchon has received three stars from Michelin, five stars from Forbes, five diamonds from AAA, a Grand Award from The Wine Spectator and he’s been named “Chef of the Century” by the French restaurant guide, Gault Millau.

Despite his honors, Robuchon strikes me as a genuinely nice, humble man who loves what he does and loves making people happy with his cuisine.

“I was born in 1945, so times were difficult and food was often scarce,” Robuchon said through an interpreter. “Food wasn’t a luxury and learning how to cook wasn’t a fancy, they were both necessities. So, I learned how to cook for my family and how to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs when I was just 15 years old.”

Robuchon worked his way up through the ranks before opening his own small restaurant in Paris. He said his first real break came within the first month when a reporter for The New York Times wrote a rave review. London’s Daily Herald followed with another stellar write-up, and the Michelin stars soon followed — first one, then two and then the ever-elusive, highly-prized third star.

“I never expected the response that I got from the critics,” Robuchon said. “I wanted to do elegant cuisine, but simple. Creating a complex dish that is at the same time simple is much more difficult than creating a very complicated recipe.”

Having now dined at Robuchon’s Las Vegas restaurant twice, I’d have to say the seamless blending of elegance and accessibility is Robuchon’s most amazing talent. He produces dishes with layers of flavors, textures and aromas — beautifully constructed creations that are a joy to view and consume, using just a handful of ingredients. The two meals, by the way, rank among some of the most pleasurable and delicious I’ve had.

Robuchon smiled when I told him I was in awe of his ability to come up with dishes with some many nuances, but so few ingredients. He told me that’s exactly what he strives for and he was clearly pleased I had gotten his culinary message loud and clear.

Two shining examples of Robuchon’s mastery came during my most recent meal — a fish course consisting of black cod. The cod was so delicate, yet so savory, it almost defied definition. The fact that the course was paired with an “old vine” Sancerre, 60-year old Sauvignon Blanc vines from the heart of the Loire Valley, the single best Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever had, was just icing on the cake.

Then, there were the beef cheeks, the final course before dessert, and perhaps one of the single best meat courses I’ve experienced in a long, long time. The purity and depth of the flavors combined with meat that literally melted in your mouth, and another spot-on wine pairing, a red Bordeaux this time, was the perfect end to the savory portion of the evening and the best possible entrance to the dessert and candies that followed.

Robuchon operates a dozen restaurants the world over, including two in Vegas, Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which offers more casual fare.

Robuchon comes to Las Vegas four times a year, each trip recreating meals based on the seasons, even if there are no real seasons in the desert. He also meets face-to-face with the media and customers. Robuchon told me he loves it all — cooking, creating and visiting with people like me who love his cuisine.

“I have no plans to retire,” he said. “I have a job that I love. Every day I come to work loving what I do.”

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.